Lisa Dwan's Beckett at The MAC

The Irish actor performs three of the playwright's most challenging plays in Belfast from September 2

You can’t judge the size of a play by its length, particularly when it comes to Samuel Beckett. The trilogy of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby that Lisa Dwan is bringing to The MAC from September 2 – 6 lasts just an hour but it will likely be the most intense, electrifying and harrowing theatre ever seen in Belfast.

'It’s very uncompromising,' Dwan admits. 'The audience has to bring their eyes, their ears and their courage to this production.'

Courage is something that Dwan has in spades. To immerse herself so completely in Beckett’s characters and face down madness, trauma and imminent death night after night is, the actress admits, a draining experience: 'I’m beyond shattered. I feel like I’ve aged ten years after I’ve performed it.'

Not I is the best known work of this trilogy. In total blackout, bar a light that illuminates Dwan’s mouth, the actress gives voice to Mouth, a mad, isolated 70-year-old woman who frenetically spews narrative fragments of a life devoid of love. Her abandonment as a child, loneliness, shame and confusion haunt this broken old soul.

For the monologue’s searing nine minutes duration, Dwan’s head is immobilized by a harness strapped to a board that separates her from the audience. Mouth is suspended eight feet above the ground, framed dramatically by the pitch black void. So rapid is Dwan’s delivery that she has no time to swallow. Her sensory deprivation is extreme. 'We operate at the very edge, in extremity.'

Dwan’s use of the first person plural pronoun doesn’t mean that her mind has cracked and that she’s succumbed to the multiple personalities she embodies; she refers instead to the six-person road team that manages the stage production, lighting and costumes.

'They’re all absolutely brilliant,' enthuses Dwan. 'They take the work so seriously. It’s so funny, when I tap into their stage fright at times I think, "Jesus, I’d better pull up my socks here." They’re all so dedicated – one of the best teams I could ever ask for.'

The fractured mind of Mouth is followed by the isolated, traumatized character of Footfalls and, in a compelling finale, the dying woman of Rockaby. Doubtless some will see hopelessness as the common thread of these short Beckett plays but Dwan instead recognizes a stoicism in these three women.

'I think the overriding theme of these three creatures is defiance. That’s what keeps me returning. Beckett looks at the bare, horrific facts of life with such bravery, such courage.'

The stark humanity in Beckett’s pen and the absence of compassion may be difficult for some audience members to deal with. On the contrary, 'I think he’s too far in to have compassion,' says Dwan of the Irish playwright. 'Compassion is a very sentimental emotion and I don’t think there’s much call for it here, if I’m honest.'

The contrast between the manic pace of Not I and the slow pulse of Footfalls – a pulse that fades gradually and completely in Rockaby – couldn’t be more pronounced. Rhythm is a central component of these Beckett plays.

'It’s utter music,' Dwan believes. 'It’s my guide throughout. All of Beckett’s work is written like a musical score and adhering to that is just such a privilege. It’s central to the work. The musicality is the work.'

As a trained ballet dancer who once performed with Rudolph Nureyev, Dwan brings all her experience to these roles. 'My approach is very much as a dancer, in more ways than one. Obviously I respond to the musicality of the work like a dancer, but also I take the discipline required as a dancer for these roles.'

One of the most taxing elements in Dwan’s preparation was perfecting the voice of the mother in Footfalls. ';So many different elements went into that voice I can’t tell you. I spent six hours a day, six days a week for a month on that voice just to get it completely right. I invoked so many different ingredients. [Antonin] Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the voice that Beckett heard as well. There are so many different aspects to it.'

Directing Dwan on this trilogy has been Walter Asmus, arguably the greatest and certainly the most experienced director of Beckett’s work over the past 40 years. 'It’s a brilliant partnership but an explosive one at times,' Dwan confesses. 'There were some very tense and difficult times but both of our hearts were in the right place and I think that ultimately we trusted one another.'

Asmus knew Beckett well, working closely with him from the 1970s until the playwright’s death. Few directors have such a feel for Beckett’s rhythms as Asmus. 'Walter is incredibly sensitive to the music of the words, like a conductor,' explains Dwan.

'There was one point in Rockaby when Walter wouldn’t let me get past the first six lines. That was fascinating. He kept taking me back again and again and again. Suddenly I realized what he was doing when I kind of took off like a glider and I caught an invisible current, of Beckett, really.

'It changed the piece profoundly. He made so sure I was technically aligned. Then he just let me go and this current, this momentum took me all the way to the end of the piece. It was an incredible experience. When I looked up Walter was gone.'

Dwan has had more than a few unusual experiences performing Not I since she first interpreted Mouth in 2005. 'In The Royal Court I felt like a being who had taken flight across the auditorium.'

In 2013, at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, Dwan took Mouth down into the depths of Enniskillen’s Marble Arch Caves. 'It was an extraordinary experience,' she recalls. 'You couldn’t get a more extreme blackout. I felt like a creature who had died already in the caves.'

For Beckettphiles, Dwan’s Beckett trilogy in The MAC will be the theatrical event of the year. Dwan is adamant, however, that these plays are for all-comers. 'Leave your intellect at home,' she says firmly, like a mother telling the kids to leave their muddy boots at the back door.

'That’s not what Beckett’s about. Anyone can connect with this work. This is highly emotional and visceral work. It’s for everybody,' emphasizes Dwan, 'and it’s of our time.'

And this may be the only chance for Belfast theatre goers to witness Dwan performing this trilogy, as the actress is unlikely to perform Not I for much longer. That has a Best Before date in my view, or I’ll lose my sanity. It’s too taxing. I’m going to give myself another year or so of that and then hang up the lips and pass on the notes to somebody else.'

TNot I, Footfalls and Rockaby runs at The MAC, Belfast, September 2 – 6. Lisa Dwan will give a post-show talk on September 4, hosted by Prime Cut's Artistic Director, Emma Jordan.